Month: August 2006


In case you didn’t know, our local paper here, the Globe, has started running blogs on its entertainment site. (I suppose it’s good that they’re trying, but if they have money for this sort of thing, I wish they’d spend it on some actual column inches for classical music once in a while, considering how much of it goes on in their alleged metropolitan area. But I digress.)

Anyways, Geoff Edgers has been posting an episodic interview with Ted Libbey, who’s just written a tome called The NPR Listener’s Encyclopedia of Classical Music. (Apparently NPR plays other types of music than the annoying fake-world-music baby-boomer-guilt-assuaging acoustic trash it uses for bumpers on “Morning Edition.” But I digress.)

Anyways, Part 3 of this interview is up, and there’s a bit in it that really made me narrow my eyes. Asked what composers he’s personally sick of, Libbey says:

Of the canonic “great” composers, Robert Schumann is surely the most overrated. That doesn’t mean I’m sick of him…yet.

Everybody’s got their own tastes, of course, but when a writer on classical music disses Schumann, the most logophilic composer out there, my eyebrow goes up. Schumann not only is an unparalleled master of text-setting, but is one of the only composers to successfully create instrumental works with convincing literary structures—musical short stories and novels that can favorably compare with their word-based counterparts. (Check out the Davidsbündlertänze, an uncanny musicalization of a set of linked descriptive vignettes… and I, at least, am convinced that the Eichendorff-Liederkreis is an embedded meta-narrative in the style of Schumann’s favorite novelist, Jean Paul.)

Schumann can be a tough nut to crack for performers (it was for me, anyway, but once I got through the shell, yum), but it’s significant that singers, who deal with words on a daily basis, love him almost without reservation. So I’m a little suspicious of any writer who doesn’t like Schumann, just as I’d be a little suspicious of any painter who couldn’t appreciate Debussy, or any pastry chef who didn’t care for Strauss, or any mad megalomanaical supervillian without a jukebox full of Wagner.

Great tastes that taste great together

Over at the Globe this morning, Richard Dyer seems to be in an unusually dialectical mood in reviewing a couple of last week’s Tanglewood concerts. Historically informed performance vs. unrelieved Romanticism, celebrity vs. musicality, big picture guy vs. micromanager—it’s all here, a mouth-watering Hegelian smorgasbord.

And then (referring to said micromanager) Dyer tosses in one last either-or:

He is a truly formidable musician, but an unsmiling one, and there is no room for playfulness or charm in an approach built on precision and power.

Yeah, those things never go together.

Follow the money

Now and again, whenever I feel like my blood pressure’s not high enough, it’s fun to go read some of the blogs over at ArtsJournal. I haven’t been doing this on a regular basis, though, so it’s only now that I’ve caught up with Greg Sandow’s latest evangelizing for making classical music more like popular music. (There’s plenty more where this came from, all well-written and worth perusing.)

The germ of Sandow’s argument is that the future health of classical music depends on its maintaining a presence in popular consciousness. He thinks the best way to do this is to package and market it like popular music, encourage more crossover endeavors, and abandon the mindset that classical music is deeper and more artistically meaningful than popular music. I think he’s wrong.

Simply put, if you put classical music in competition with popular music on popular music’s turf, it loses every time. Popular music has become the prevalent musical culture of our time because there’s a lot of money to be made; nobody will ever get (comparatively) rich doing classical music. It’s become a commonplace argument that the “decline” of classical music in the second half of the 20th century happened because classical artists abandoned their audience via (take your pick) stuffy formality, over-intellectualization, non-communicative serial music, etc., etc. My own sense is that, outside of the popular media, there’s just as much classical music going on today as there was fifty years ago. Classical music isn’t on the wane, it’s just that popular culture has waxed to an unprecedented degree. And the reasons for that are economic.

Here’s my alternate narrative: popular music didn’t really become the cash cow it is now until the 1950’s—suddenly, post-WWII, teenagers had a lot of disposable income for the first time. They were spending it on popular music (as teenagers have always done), but now, the amount of money they were spending was large enough to attract the attention of individuals and companies who had no inherent interest in the artistic value of the music. They got into the business to make a buck, pure and simple, and that became the driving force in the industry.

In other words, up until the war, all types of music were on a relatively level playing field, financially speaking; there was money to be made, but a) not in a sufficiently unbalanced way to drive entrepreneurs into one type of music over another, and b) not in sufficient amounts to attract non-music-loving capitalists. But once the money became serious, popular music won out. The overhead is less (fewer players means fewer people to pay, as well as cheaper recording costs), the marketing is easier (3-minute blocks of music are an easier sell to advertising-based media than 20-minute blocks), and the possibility for economic exploitation is greater (a far greater emphasis on young, “entry-level” performers translates into a greater corporate share of the profits).

There’s also the fact that popular music has lyrics, which means that it’s far easier to write and talk about than instrumental classical music. Even today, the vast majority of rock and pop critics can’t write about the music in a particularly inspiring way, but they don’t have to—they just analyze the words. (I wouldn’t mind this if all lyrics were on a Dylan-esque level, but let’s face it, not even close.)

Sandow keeps saying that he doesn’t want classical music to “dumb down,” but all the virtues of classical music—subtlety, intricacy, intellectual engagement, and a grandeur that takes longer than three minutes to build and realize—are at odds with the lowest-common-denominator aesthetic that’s the holy grail of popular marketing. Sure, there’s popular-style music out there that has a lot of similar virtues, but, like classical music, it’s a niche market. And, taken collectively, I think classical music’s current niche market is probably larger.

I don’t underestimate the need for classical music organizations to market to younger audiences. (Let’s just say that the collective accumulated wisdom of a Friday-afternoon Boston Symphony audience is no doubt considerable.) And certainly younger demographics are more media-savvy consumers than classical marketers are used to. But that brings with it a need for the classical world to be that much more honest about what they’re offering; if you try and market classical music like popular music, that younger demographic is going to see right through it. At the same time, there’s the danger that, in pursuit of a pop-music-sized audience, classical organizations will cross the line between popular marketing and popular aesthetics. The problem with using the marketing trappings of popular culture is that it brings with it the tendency to measure success in the same way: quantity and profitability vs. quality and meaningfulness. Popular culture is beholden to the free market, and the free market is great for determining price, but it’s lousy at determining value.

"So I can’t give you back my heart completely…"

…and I reserve the right to change my mind. The cheatin’ hearts in this case belong to a smattering of members on the Nashville Metropolitan Council, who seem to be getting cold feet as the Nashville Symphony’s new Schermerhorn Symphony Center walks up the aisle to its scheduled opening. See, the city of Nashville contributed five million dollars a year to the Center last year, and is scheduled to do the same for the next two years, but now said council members are looking to bail on the future part of that commitment. (Article via Arts Journal.) In the words of council member John Summers:

“I think the amount of money that’s been committed to the Symphony is excessive, and I think that the administration has not been forthcoming with what their commitment was.”

—which raises the question of just how forthcoming he would like it to be. I found the commitment clearly spelled out on page 47 of Nashville’s 2006-07 proposed Capital Improvements Budget (long PDF from an FTP server that seems to crash Safari; use Firefox). (For perspective, the CIB also has five million dollars earmarked for new concession stands at the Nashville Coliseum.) Here’s the kicker: the budget was unanimously approved by the Nashville Metropolitan Council on June 13, 2006. That’s right—the naysayers voted for the funding only two months ago. My fickle friend, the summer wind.

Extra fun! Do a quick ‘n’ dirty calculation of the economic impact of a local arts organization. (I plugged in some numbers for Nashville, and it would seem that this unsourced claim of a 20-million-dollar impact in the Center’s first year is not that pie-in-the-sky.)

"Yes? Is it about the hedge?"

Comments are always welcome here, but only one can be first; and the guy who claimed Soho the Dog’s comment maidenhead has a blog of his own, which anyone reading this should go visit right now. He’s a funeral director; if you happen to join the choir invisible in the Southeastern United States, he’s your man. (I actually toyed with the idea of being a coroner when I was a kid, so I’m tickled to, well, you know, that my first commenter is an undertaker.)

How to make concerts not boring

I was thinking about a piece of music today, and thought I’d procrastinate by trying to track it down. It was a piece my teacher in grad school, Lukas Foss, used to bring up as a good example of a composer being “naughty.” (“Naughty” was always a compliment coming from him.)

I did find it — an 1972 orchestral number called “…No Longer Than Ten (10) Minutes” by the dean of Canadian composers, R. Murray Schafer. The joke was, at least as far as I knew, that the title was taken straight from the legalese in the commission, so Schafer made that the title and, of course, made the piece longer than ten minutes.

Well, that ain’t the half of it. This piece, at least on paper, sounds seriously awesome. The Toronto Symphony’s practice at the time was to put new music at the beginning of the concert, so subscribers could take comfort in being fashionably late. As Schafer writes:

The management of the [Toronto Symphony] had informed me that the new work would have the distinction of being first on the program “when the audience was fresh.” I determined to screw them up by agglutinating my piece to the next piece on the program so that there would be no opportunity to open the doors between numbers, and late-comers would have to wait outside until the intermission.

The piece emerges out of the orchestra tune-up; as the second piece on the program was to be the Brahms B-flat piano concerto, Schafer ended his piece by having the last desk strings sustain a dominant chord (that would be resolved by the opening of the Brahms) with the instruction to keep playing it after the piece was “over,” after the conductor left the stage, during the pause, and until the downbeat of the next piece. But wait, there’s more:

The climax is reached after a long crescendo precisely at ten minutes. Then the conductor signals the orchestra to cut and turns to leave the stage. But the orchestra continues to hold the last chord, only gradually fading down. Now the instructions are to go back to the beginning of the crescendo if there is applause from the audience and to continue repeating the crescendo to the climax for as long as the applause continues.

The longer the audience applauds, the longer the piece goes on.

Needless to say, the result was commotion. Schafer says that, after a couple of rounds from a pre-planted claque, the audience actually caught on to the joke, and kept triggering new crescendos from the percussion. Finally the conductor reappeared and plunged the orchestra into the next piece (not the Brahms; management had gotten wind of Schafer’s scheme and rearranged the program). Let Schafer have the last word:

Of course the critics were unkind. They attacked me for being insincere. Not a word about the fraudulence of others. Bang,
Schafer gets it right over the head. One critic even suggested that I appeared to be finished as a composer. My poor mother almost believed him.

No recording; as far as I can tell, no repeat performance. According to another source, graphic elements in the score were derived from Vancouver traffic patterns. Sweet Jesus, somebody needs to program this thing.

(Quotes are from Schafer’s own PDF compendium of program notes for all his works. It’s long — “No Longer Than Ten (10) Minutes” notes start on page 33.)

Manners of speaking

This was nagging at me, so I went back and re-read a bunch of last week’s obituaries for Elizabeth Schwarzkopf. They’re all about the same: her renown in the 60’s and 70’s, her shady Nazi past, her EMI career, her husband, her tyrannical teaching style. Oh, and this…

From The New York Times:

But others found her interpretations calculated, mannered and arch…

From the Boston Globe:

Her syllable-by-syllable highlightings of poetic texts were also notably unspontaneous, leading to repeated charges of affectation and mannerism.

From About Last Night:

Yet even at the height of Schwarzkopf’s career, there were plenty of critical naysayers who found her singing fussy and mannered to the point of archness, and since her retirement in 1975, it’s my impression that their point of view, which I share, has come to prevail.

… and I suddenly realized that calling a singer “mannered” is just a way of concealing a certain laziness of opinion. (I’ve done it, too.) Face it: all singing is mannered. You’re taking words that would normally be spoken, and singing them — the amount of moment-to-moment strategizing is enormous. If you’re going to take someone to task, though, I think that you need to put in a little more effort than just calling it “mannered.” Any singer worth their salt is doing just as much calculation as Schwarzkopf ever did; it’s just that, if you buy it, you don’t notice it.

Stage Floor Canteen

The Globe reports on the replacement of the stage floor at Symphony Hall. In short: they’re going to an awful lot of trouble, mainly because of the floor’s “mystical reputation” among musicians for contributing to the overall acoustic of the place.

A show of hands: how many people think that the practical result of this will be a lot of sad head-shaking and pompous murmurs of how it just doesn’t sound like it used to? How much less murmuring would have occurred if the BSO had said nothing at all? (It’s not like they’re replacing maple with stainless steel and bathroom tile.)

This is a familiar trope in classical music coverage, particularly when new halls open — a review of the acoustic. Complaints about the acoustic. How much money has been spent tweaking the acoustic. Who cares? It’s the kind of head-of-a-pin criticism that makes classical music seem like a lot more work than it is. (And makes people insecure about their own ability to hear.)

But what’s this?

“The orchestra has saved the floorboards and plans to polish them, and sell small pieces as mementos and souvenirs.”

Can I buy the whole floor? I want the most acoustically mystical backyard deck in town!

(Something about Boston and floors.)

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